Bishop James Ussher came from a very long line in Ireland. If you go way back in his family line, you will find that his ancestor was named Ussher because of his occupation—he was usher to the king.
When James had come of age, he was ready to go off to college. He was sent to Dublin and became one of the first graduates of the newly established Trinity College at the University of Dublin. He studied theology and biblical studies, and after his graduation he was appointed professor of theology. But he was also then brought into the church battles in those days, and so he was appointed bishop, whereupon he left the classroom and entered church politics.
Throughout the 1610s–1630s, there were some difficulties for those who were intensely behind the Reformation, as Ussher was, in the British Isles. This was largely due to King James VI and I and King Charles I. They were not interested in the reforms and the desires of the Puritans. They were only interested in extending their reach in Great Britain and also to Ireland. Ussher was trying to withstand that move away from the Reformation and he devoted much of his time during those decades to fighting for the Reformation in his home of Ireland.
He did not neglect his scholarly duties either. He applied his efforts to what would be his massive work—it took him more than twenty years to write—called The Annals of the Old Testament. James Ussher loved dates, and he tried to give a chronology of the Bible. He dated creation to October 23, 4004 B.C., and he went on from there to assign dates to various Old Testament events. Sometime in the 1650s, those dates were added to the King James Bible. He also wrote a book called A Body of Divinity. At our library at Reformation Bible College, we have a wonderful shelf of early Reformation books, and among them I found a copy of the fourth edition of this book, published in 1653. A Body of Divinity is subtitled The sum and substance of Christian Religion, Catechistically propounded and explained, by way of Question and Answer, Methodically and Familiarly handled, composed long since by James Ussher, Bishop.
Ussher begins his catechism with questions about “What is the meaning of life?” He puts it this way: “What is that which all men especially desire?” The answer: “Eternal life and happiness.” “How do men look to obtain happiness?” he asks. “By religion, which is a thing so proper to man that it doth distinguish him more from beasts than very reason that is made his form. For very beasts have some sparks of resemblance of reason, but none of religion.” “Is religion generally to be found in all men?” “Yes,” Ussher answers, “for the very heathens condemned them to death that denied all religion and there are no people so barbarous but they will have some form of religion to acknowledge a god as all India, east and west, showeth.” “May they be saved by any religion?” he asks. “No, but only by the true as appears. This is life eternal, to know Thee and to know who Thou has sent, Jesus Christ, and he that knoweth not the Son, knoweth not the Father.”
From there, Ussher takes us into his whole Body of Divinity.